Last night I caught up with a high school friend over dinner in Brooklyn. I learned two fascinating new things about the world.

Matatus in Kampala

First, when I mentioned the 14-passenger vans known as matatus that are so common in East Africa (and elsewhere), she told me that Brooklyn has something similar. They’re known as “dollar vans” — and apparently they are as ubiquitous as they are illegal. One journalist writes:

This is the paradox of Winston’s work: While he is fully licensed, insured, and inspected, his vans are prohibited from doing the one thing they really do — picking up passengers off the street.

David King, from Columbia, quips that all dollar vans are 100 percent illegal (because they work the curbs), but some are 200 percent illegal (because they don’t bother to get licensed in the first place). Winston says police don’t cite the unlicensed vans, which eat into his business, but do go after the licensed ones for the curb infractions. “The law gets made up as you go along,” Winston says, adding that the pink cellphone ad on the van is both an attempt to make a little money as he cruises up and down Flatbush, and a trial balloon to see whether there’s a specific law prohibiting advertising on the vans. Later, one of the 500 or so completely illegal vans pulls up beside him, and in friendly Jamaican patois, Winston accuses the driver of being a terrorist. “It’s not like I hate against them. But I’m running a business and they’re running a hustle,” he says.

More here and here.

I saw something similar when I lived in Chinatown in Manhattan: each morning and evening there were dozens of minibuses, most without any marking in English, taking passengers too and from… I didn’t know where. I just looked them up, and found this yelp review of a service that runs to Flushing.

Takeaway? Informality blooms everywhere, with varying degrees. Public services are complemented by private ones. Everybody hustles.

The other thing I learned came when we were talking about television. I mentioned that telenovelas are shockingly popular in Kenya and Uganda. These are Spanish-language soap operas, terribly dubbed over in English, and broadcast by a South African station (so I assume the shows have an audience elsewhere on the continent). I’ve seen La Tormenta and En Nombre del Amor on Kenyan TV, but I know there are others. Here’s the new thing I learned: apparently India has its own soap operas, mostly in Hindi. They have a similar style — dramatic twists, ridiculous overacting, etc.

Takeaway? Not sure. But I find it interesting that this format seems to work across countries. Does anyone know anything about soap operas as a cultural phenomenon? Even more so, as a cross-cultural phenomenon? I’d curious how they differ across countries, why the Spanish telenovelas are so popular in East Africa, and whether a country like India develops its own for cultural reasons, or just because of market size.

  1. Well, there’s Japanese telenovelas here in Peru as well….


  2. I was told by some Kenyans that one of the reasons telenovelas are so popular there is because of the dubbed English, which was more enunciated and easier to understand than the English spoken in American and British shows.

    By the way, melodramatic soap operas are popular in the Middle East as well, and Southeast Asia. Seems to be a global phenomenon!


  3. Telenovelas are popular in most parts of Asia. Most countries have their own soaps because people will prefer to watch what they can relate to…as long as it’s presented dramatically. Indian soaps are usually awful. They’re often copied plots but with cultural notions thrown in (Ugly Betty took a weird turn here). There’s a lot of music, dancing and celebrity appearances to promote upcoming movies. Characters are seriously over-dressed at all times. Dramatic moments are stretched to boredom with people staring at each other and music playing till you almost forget what the hell just happened. Lately, this formula has begun to lose it’s charm so soaps dont last as long as they used to. They’re branching into topics not seen on Indian tv before (like vampire meets mortal). But we’ve got a long way to go before we meet everyday characters on Indian soaps so most of the younger generation watches the UK and USA series aired here. I think Spanish telenovelas are also broadcast in parts of Asia. I know they air in Philippines and India.


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